A major concern today among church leaders wanting to stimulate diversity is the question of musical style. What styles work best in racially diverse churches? Is it classic hymns of the faith, including negro spirituals? Or is it contemporary praise music and recent gospel? What about incorporating different languages, especially Spanish, or maybe Zulu or Swahili? And what about incorporating “ethnic rhythms” that represent “soul” or a “Latin beat”?
Many promoters of diversity insist on actively incorporating what sociologists call ethnic signaling. Even if the music is poorly done, placing it in the service recognizes that people come from various ancestral backgrounds. One church leader told me, “The gesture of musical style—even if it is bad—says to members ‘You matter.’” It also signals to members that church leaders value diversity in the congregation. George Yancey once wrote, “developing an inclusive style of worship is important because it signals a sensitivity and welcomeness to individuals of different races.”1 In other words, playing different types of music is a symbolic expression of care and commitment.
But not all church leaders welcome the attempt to diversify music in an attempt to satisfy stereotypic racial overtones. And research shows that using different styles in the attempt to integrate one group of people can alienate groups from other ethnic and racial groups. For example, Rebecca Y. Kim found that when an Asian American campus ministry had black students lead worship with their “African American gospel style,” white students simply left2.
Looking through field notes from dozens of observations in successfully diverse churches and analyzing over 170 interviews with their leaders and members, I found that all multiracial churches are intentional about worship, not all are intentional about racial diversity3. In short, successfully multiracial churches vary widely not only in the musical styles used in services but also—and more importantly—in the degree of intentionality for diversity in the design of services.
I organize the philosophy of worship music selection in diverse churches around two primary considerations. The first consideration is the degree of racial awareness. How conscious are music leaders in considering race-ethnicity in planning their music selection for the worship gatherings? The second consideration is the degree of musical variety. How important is it to have different types, styles, or genres of music in the worship gatherings? When we combine both considerations and distinguish between leaders who have “high racial awareness” versus “low racial awareness” as well as leaders who emphasize exhibiting “high musical variety” versus “low musical variety,” it yields a fourfold typology:
Philosophies of Music Guiding Music
Selection among Music Leaders
|Low Racial Awareness||High Racial Awareness|
|High Musical Variety||Professionalists||Pluralists|
|Low Musical Variety||Traditionalists||Assimilationists|
In my study, about half of church leaders in successfully diverse churches bring absolutely no racial/ethnic awareness in choosing music. Depending on their commitment to musical variety, some are “Traditionalists” who maintain a single, consistent style of music, while others are “Professionalists” who have a high value for bringing many styles of music into services without a concern for their effect on racial diversity.
Of those leaders who do bring racial-ethnic awareness in choosing music, about half of them are “Pluralists” who are consumed with cultivating musical variety on the basis of appealing to different racial and ethnic groups. While the philosophy of pluralism is not the one most commonly held among worship leaders, it is the philosophy that is most popularly believed to exist among leaders of multiracial churches. The “pluralist approach” is therefore the philosophical approach to music that is most aggressively promoted as a strategy in discussions of diversity to worship leaders of non-diverse churches.
In contrast to pluralists, “Assimilationists” tend to share a more generalized belief in the universal power of music in affecting individuals. As part of their philosophy of musical selection, they commit to a specific style of music that is believed to be universal. Assimilationists defend their choice of music style as the one that best accomplishes worship among all people regardless of their racial-ethnic group4.
The bottom line is that all musical arrangements can be found to “work” for worship in successfully diverse churches, so no specific form is absolutely necessary to accomplish diversity. And what makes this point so difficult to make is that every church leader in a successfully diverse church has “evidence” that their orientation toward music selection works “best” because they see the “obvious” diversity that regularly happens in their own worship gatherings.
- George A. Yancey, 2003, One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches, Inter Varsity Press, p. 78. ↩
- Rebecca Y. Kim, 2006, God’s New Whiz Kids: Korean American Evangelicals on Campus, New York University Press. ↩
- Gerardo Marti, Forthcoming, Worship Across the Racial Divide: Notions of Race and the Practice of Religious Music in Multiracial Churches, Oxford University Press. ↩
- See Gerardo Marti, 2009, A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church, Indiana University Press, and Gerardo Marti, 2008, Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church, Rutgers University Press. ↩